Tag Archives: Elias Khoury

“Written with needles on the eyeballs of insight…”: Elias Khoury’s ‘The Broken Mirrors: Sinalcol’

“He tried to explain to her that words must enclose meaning so that meaning can keep its meaning, and that in spoken Arabic they don’t say “I want to smoke a cigarette” but “I want to drink a cigarette” so the tobacco melts in the mouth and imparts to it the flavour of the plant.” (p. 74)

In his introduction to Elias Khoury’s Little Mountain, Edward Said attributes to him the following quote about Lebanon: “the past is discredited, the future completely uncertain, the present unknowable.” That could well be the blurb of Khoury’s latest novel, The Broken Mirrors: Sinalcol. Sinalcol is the story of Karim, who flees Lebanon soon after the outbreak of the Civil War. Karim wants to build a new world for himself in Montpellier, abandoning “his life among the bombs that had made gaps in his soul and his memory precisely so that he could begin a new one…” (p. 204), to “erase his memories and manufacture new ones” (p. 227).

But now, at the age of forty, with a successful dermatology practice, married to a Frenchwoman and with two daughters, Karim inexplicably accepts his brother’s invitation to return to Beirut and help set up a hospital during the temporary truce. And from the outset, it is clear to Karim that the hospital is no more than a reason of convenience. When he had left Lebanon, he had done so under the shadow of personal and political betrayal, “his life…  like a rubble of events and memories that it was beyond him by then to reorganize” (p. 204). The intervening years in a faraway country have only served to heighten his own sense of dislocation. Even as the Lebanese Civil War intensifies, his brother marries Hend, his lover, whom he had left behind when he fled, and his father dies. So now, after all these years, Karim is driven to return, to “repair his mirror and redraw his image” (p. 267), and to “find” once more an enigmatic individual lost to him in the northern-Lebanese city of Tripoli, who goes only by the name of “Sinalcol” (expectedly, we are left in uncertainty until the very end about whether Sinalcol exists at all, whether he’s alive or dead, or simply an invented alter ego of Karim’s).

Mirrors play a central role in Khoury’s novel, beginning with the title. At the heart of Sinalcol is the idea that just as an individual needs to construct a stable and defined image of herself for the sake of her personal and mental integrity, nations too must have their mirrors before them, for succour and reassurance. But mirrors break. In the middle of his increasingly fraught attempts to reconcile himself to his memories, to Beirut, and to his family and his former lover, Karim realises that civil war is “an assemblage of broken mirrors that run parallel to one another, making of the fragments images that reproduce each other but refuse to form a coherent whole” (p. 267). In a strange way, his own dislocation, and his inability to put his ideas “in a vessel that imposes form on them, adding to and subtracting from them” (p. 267) is “mirrored” by his nation’s inability to impose form and coherence upon its own past and present.

The book’s own form embodies this sense of dislocation. For old readers of Khoury, this style will be immediately familiar: there is no continuous narrative (although there is a lot more of it than in Little Mountain and Yalo, for instance!); characters – whether it is Karim’s lover Hend, her mother, his brother Nasim, or himself – are scattered and broken, fruitlessly trying to make sense and impose patterns upon themselves and their lives; events are told and retold, each time partially and from different perspectives and points of view, taking radically different hues and complexions, and sometimes even contradicting each other, so that rather than proceeding linearly, the book unravels itself like a complex web; and even at the end, one is not quite sure what exactly happened, and how it happened.

Nor is Sinalcol a simplistic morality tale, or a polemic. Although its dominant theme might be the individual’s – and nation’s – need for mirrors (“He didn’t tell her that a person cannot live without his mirrors...”  (p. 228), both Khoury and his characters are circumspect about what mirrors can do. In one of Khoury’s previous novels, Gate of the Sun, another character, Khaleel, fears being trapped in one version of history, akin to being trapped before one mirror, and becoming a prisoner of the image that one sees (in Gate of the Sun, it is the image of the Palestinian as a prisoner). In Sinalcol, in almost Kundera-esque terms, Karim resists converting reality into symbols (and it seems that Khoury uses the image and the symbol almost interchangeably), because “when we resort to turning things into symbols it liberates us from responsibility and makes of human experience an arena of random happenings, so that life becomes no more than a story” (p. 267). Hend, to whom this is said, does not understand.

Along with the dominant theme, as in most Khoury novels, there are a number of familiar sub-themes that the novel explores. The most important – as ever – is revolution, and the failure of the revolutionary imagination. In Gate of the Sun, it was about the institutionalisation – and stasis – of the Palestinian struggle. In Sinalcol, it is about the Islamisation of the Lebanese (and Palestinian) struggle. There is a quiet, almost despairing inevitability about how Karim sees his former (secular, communist) comrades transform their own characters – and the character of the struggle – into identities that are defined by Islam (I don’t want to go on being a fool because that way the sects will swallow us up, the Left will die, the Palestinian cause will become a religious cause, and we’ll lose everything” (p. 212)). But even there, Khoury is circumspect. One of the most important characters in the novel is a Palestinian fedayeen called Jamal, whom Karim is in love with (or believes himself to be), and who dies while hijacking an Israeli bus in Haifa. Soon after, Karim is asked by the leadership of the revolution to write an article about her, since his skill as a storyteller has not gone unnoticed (“he said your article on the crusaders was excellent because it was made up of stories…” (p. 211)) For this, they give him her memoirs. Events intervene, and the story is never written, but her memoirs remain with Karim. Many years later, when he returns to Beirut, Karim is asked – and then threatened – by the now-Islamicist leadership to hand over the memoirs. He resists, but even as he does so, he thinks to himself:

“… supposing they were modified and their contents played around with and her picture put on the cover with her hair – which, the last time he’d seen it, in her posters, had been flying in the wind – hidden from sight by an Islamic headscarf and a frown in place of her laughing eyes, would he then hand over her papers? What should he do with the papers? Should he leave them to turn yellow and disintegrate in the drawer? Did the Islamists, now the rising power, not have as much right to take control of their past as the Leftists had had in their day when they’d made a turbaned sheikh and warrior such as Izz el-Din Qassam an icon of the class struggle?” (p. 398)

I paused for a few moments here, thinking about how interesting it is that Karim uses ‘power’ and ‘right’ almost interchangeably, even though we would normally think of them as diametrically opposed to each other. In the unending struggle for control over narrative, Khoury seems to be telling us, there’s never a clear-cut moral answer. I wonder, though: is the claim that everyone acts amorally when it comes to representing the past (and that therefore, nobody is better than the other)? Or is it that everyone has a moral right to represent the past in a way that allows him or her to “take control” over it, to own it, as it were?

And then, of course, there is memory and language, meaning and homeland, and the limits of memory and language in the search for meaning and homeland. An instance of Karim’s continuing dislocation in France is his developing a stutter on hearing of Hend’s marriage to his brother, Nasim: “He’d started to feel that words were betraying him, that he couldn’t relax in the French language. Words, as his father used to say, are the land in which one feels at home” (p. 7). Karim’s wife – Bernadette – however, can never understand his obsession for homelands. And much like language, memory too, is dislocated in a fractured world: “because memory needs a place, time erases memories, and people only come across their memories in the crevices of places”, so that it begins to fail in its basic task – that is, “since it cannot stand inconsistencies… [to] draw… an immutable picture of things.” (p. 251)

And then there’s the sense of the thickness of language, of language almost as a physical object in the world, through a series of striking images: “He knew that people cover themselves with words for warmth…” (p. 239); “… words, like seeds, need ground to receive them, and Hend’s ears weren’t ready” (p. 239); “Muna hadn’t liked his comparisons or his talk of love, perhaps because she’d felt his words weren’t addressed to her, were a kind of delirious speech with which he filled the gaps in his soul” (p. 420); “What he had heard in Beirut and what he heard on that strange night was the sound of silence. Silence has a sound, it can even roar, but it is the roar of a whisper, the rattling of language, that has disintegrated and turned into letters whose wounds will not be knit” (p. 420); and then, at the very end, what could serve as the epitaph of the book, of Karim’s life story, of the Civil War, and of Khoury’s entire literary oeuvre: “He looked at the lines he’d written and found the words were piling up on top of one another, and that the language in which he’d written them no longer served to carry their meanings” (p. 422). By this time, the failure of language, the failure of a human life, and the failure of a nation have all become so entangled with each other, that there is little left to hold on to but a lingering, haunting sense of melancholy.

Other reviews: The Financial TimesThe National; Banipal; and an interview with Elias Khoury about the book.

Leave a comment

Filed under Elias Khoury, Lebanon

“And the room filled with pieces of shrapnel”: Elias Khoury’s Little Mountain

Memories come back in a burst of images“, wrote Jean Genet about his time with the Palestinian fedayeen. Elias Khoury’s impressionistic, first-person, thinly-fictionalized account of the beginnings of the Lebanese Civil War is written in and through just such a burst of images. Little Mountain is a short novel, the first four chapters of which present the lived experience of the war – street-battles, battles in the church, wounds and death – and the last, a series of broken, scattered reminiscences in a Paris metro. What binds all of this together – what conveys meaning – is neither chronological narrative (time plays little to nor role in Little Mountain), nor character (at the end, we know almost as little about the narrator as we do in the beginning), but images.

For example: We ran cautiouslyclutching rifles and dreams, writes the narrator in the beginning, – evocatively conveying, without conversation or action, through that simple image, the early idealism of the revolution, and the romance of violence. “Nothing remains in his hands save a wetness that recalls the rain.” “She laughed. It rang like a bow.” “They looked like the shadow of the old oil lantern one of them carried.” Each of these images, incredibly powerful in its context, does the work that events normally do: convey meanings (as I understood them), of loss, of love and of futility, all bound up with each other and with the war.

It is not, however, that Khoury has any wish to preserve or worship ideals. There are many striking passages about war in the book, especially the (thinly ironic) descriptions of battle in a church. And in these passages – that are at times strongly reminiscent of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet in the Western Front, in their dispassion, detachment and seemingly unaffected attention to detail, Khoury mixes romance with dirt in a manner that the former cannot possibly survive. Consider, for instance:

The commander came running. It looks like they’re trying to overrun the street. Get ready. I followed him. I stood at the end of a street leading to the main road where we used to listen for the movement of military vehicles. He took Talal to another street, Talal alone. You’ve got to get down on the ground, the position commander was saying. He lay down on the water, shivering, as it seeped into his body. The shelling was intensifying. We’ve got to hold our ground. Water mixed with blood. This is the glory of the revolution. You are the pride of the revolution. And the pride of the revolution will stand fast. I was holding my rifle tight and firing. The shots rang in my ears, I couldn’t see them. I gripped the hand grenade and threw it. Water splashed up and the shrapnel went flying. The water gasped loudly; this is the glory of the revolution. I was down on the ground. But they weren’t advancing. Nothing but an overpowering smell. The smell of rain and brackish water and burning gunpowder. The sound of shells. I couldn’t see anything ahead. But Talal stayed down on the ground, shooting, advancing to the main road.  Nothing but shelling. The rain was stopping and masonry was beginning to crumble.”

 

In its choice of form (or formlessness), Khoury’s Little Mountain is similar to Latin American magic realism – in particular, it reminds one of Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo, that great Mexican novel. A reviewer writes of Pedro Paramo:

“The tenses switch back and forth, past to present and back again, sometime in the space of a single paragraph, until time itself becomes senseless. The stories begin to refract, shatter, and rebuild; pronouns multiply—I, he, she, you, stumbling over each other. Dialogue and thoughts are left unattributed. The perspectives shift from internal to external and back again.”

As a description of Little Mountain, this is accurate. In Pedro Paramo, the story is of the Mexican revolution and all its accompanying brutality, but that story is never told. We can dimly glimpse it, through a glass darkly, and we must reconstruct it in some incomplete way by trying to piece together the thousand little shards of events, metaphors, characters and images that lie scattered throughout the book. Similarly, Little Mountain is ostensibly about the Lebanese Civil War, but again, the Civil War, with its larger consequences, lurks in the background, just out of reach of our comprehension. “Do you see those clouds go by?” says the character Nazeeh. “You can reach up and touch them, but you can’t hold on to them.” This could be a description of Little Mountain. 

And what is interesting is that just as Rulfo was writing back – or writing against – a literary milieu of social realism, recognising that he needed a new form to adequately convey meaning, so is Khoury. This point is made by Edward Said in the foreward to the book, where he compares Little Mountain, as well as the Rabelaisian qualities of Emile Habibi’s Saeed the Pessoptimist, to the writings of that grand old man of the Arab novel, Naguib Mahfouz. Mahfouz, Said argues, being Egyptian, was able to “able to depend on the vital integrity and even, cultural compactness of Egypt.”  For a Palestinian writer like Habibi, on the other hand, and a Lebanese writer like Khoury writing in societies where:

“… national identity is threatened with extinction (the latter) or with daily dissolution (the former). In such societies the novel is both a risky and a highly problematic form. Typically its subjects are urgently political and its concerns radically existential. Literature in stable societies is replicable by Palestine and Lebanese writers by means of parody and exaggeration, since on a minute-by-minute basis social life for Lebanese and Palestinian writers is an enterprise with highly unpredictable results. Above all, form is an adventure, narrative both uncertain and meandering, character less a stable collection of traits than a linguistic device, as self-conscious as it is provisional and ironic…  Khoury’s idea about literature and society are of a piece with the often bewilderingly fragmented realities of Lebanon in which, he says in one of his essays, the past is discredited, the future completely uncertain, the present unknowable.”

Thus, the cry that the narrator occurs: “It is temporary!“, is perhaps most fitting of all. Temporariness is a theme that runs through Palestinian writing. Not just temporariness in the sense of present instability (think of, for instance, Mourid Barghouti comparing life to a hotel room in I Saw Ramallah), but also for a hope – and a belief – that this situation, in which everything is temporary, is itself temporary, and will pass. “We can’t just live like that with no reference point whatsoever. I can’t live like this, scattered to the winds”, he has his narrator say at another point, before immediately realising the futility of that wish. And if that is the dominant theme of Little Mountain, then it ends fittingly as well. “When the chapters conclude,” Said writes, “they come to no rest, no final cadence, no respite.”

In Little Mountain, Elias Khoury tells an impossible story not by trying to fit events into a chronology, or by trying to impose the coherence of narrative form over reality and the order of sequence over life, but through scattered formlessness itself. And given the meaninglessness of the Civl War, this might be the most adequate – and maybe the only – way to tell this particular story.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Elias Khoury, Lebanon, Middle-Eastern Writing

‘We remember in order to forget’: Elias Khoury, ‘Gate of the Sun’

Sameeh would always talk about his dream of writing a book without a beginning or an end, ‘an epic’ he called it, an epic of the Palestinian people, which he’d start by recounting the details of the great expulsion of 1948. He said we didn’t know our own history and we needed to gather the stories of every village so they’d remain alive in our memories.

In a hospital in Beirut refugee camp, Yunis, an old Palestinian freedom-fighter, is dying. All accept his impending death with resignation, save for one man: his spiritual son, Dr Khaleel, who remains convinced that by telling Yunis stories about their past lives, by telling him enough stories, he can revive him, reconstruct him, almost, in words and tales. And so it begins, from the tongue of Khaleel, the ‘epic of the Palestinian people’: shifting between 1948, the formation of the PLO, the intifada, the six-day war, the Lebanese civil war, the massacre of the camps and beyond, and all the years in between; following the exiles through village, camp and battlefield, intertwining individual stories of love, loss, betrayal, heartbreak, struggle, sorrow and joy, with the violent and bloody events – the battles and the massacres – that have set their stamp upon the political map. And so, out of the ‘stories of every village’ is assembled the history the Palestinian people after the nakba, that book ‘without beginning or end.Gate of the Sun is an utterly remarkable and compelling book, in every way.

Like Ghassan Kanafani, Khoury’s writing grapples with the fundamental question: what is Palestine, the homeland, that was lost? In Returning to Haifa, Kanafani sharply contrasts two visions of the homeland: one, backward-looking, that refuses to accept 1948 as a fact, that has fixed the homeland as it was before the loss, that will only accept a return to that vision, a vision that doesn’t even exist anymore; and a forward-looking one that seeks to reclaim that which was lost, but without any preset notions of what the homeland is, or must be. With as much deftness and brilliance, Khoury highlights the same clash – present throughout the book in numerous temporary-return stories, but most specifically – in this memorable interaction between Khaleel, Yunis and the old woman, Umm Hassan, after Umm Hassan has brought back an orange-tree branch from Palestine to the Lebanese refugee camp where they all live in exile. It is an exchange that deserves to be quoted in full.

I cut an orange from the branch so that I could taste Palestine, but Umm Hassan yelled, “No! It’s not for eating, it’s Palestine.” I was ashamed of myself and hung the branch on the wall of the sitting room in my house, and when you cam to visit me and saw the mouldy fruit, you yelled, “What’s that smell?” And I told you the story and watched you explode in anger.

“You should have eaten the oranges,” you told me.

“But Umm Hassan stopped me and said they were from the homeland.”

“Umm Hassan’s senile,” you answered. “You should have eaten the oranges, because the homeland is something we have to eat, not let it eat us. We have to eat the oranges of Palestine, and we have to eat Palestine and Galilee.”

It came to me then that you were right, but the oranges were going bad. You went to the wall and pulled off the branch, and I took it from your hand and stood there confused, not knowing what to do with that bunch of decay.

“What are you going to do?” you asked.

“Bury it,” I said.

“Why bury it?” you asked.

“I’m not going to throw it away, because it’s from the homeland.”

You took the branch and threw it in the rubbish.

“What a scandal!” you said. “What are these old women’s superstitions? Before hanging the homeland up on the wall, it’d be better to knock down the wall and leave. We have to eat every orange in the world and not be afraid, because the homeland isn’t oranges. The homeland is us.”

Because Yunis knows something that Khaleel only dimly perceives: memories, if indulged in too long, can become a trap, a labyrinth from which the only way out is into more memories, to the point where memories transform themselves into lived reality. We remember to forget, says Khaleel, in a moment of deep insight. And later, he asks: ‘is memory a sickness – a strange sickness that affects a whole people? A sickness that has made you imagine things and build your entire lives on the illusions of memory?’ At other times, Khoury’s characters compare memories to swarms of ants, overwhelming in their ferocity, inevitable as a flood. And memories twist and mangle time, beyond all recognition. Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than by the predicament of the grandmother:

My grandmother’s pillow doesn’t look like a pillow any more. It’s turned into a heap of thorns. My grandmother used to stuff her pillow with flowers, saying that when she rested her head on it she felt as though she’d returned to the village, and she’d make me rest my head on it. I’d lay my head on her pillow and smell decay. I joined the fedayeen when I was nine years old to escape the flowers of El Ghabsiyyeh that my grandmother would pick at the camp’s rubbish dump. I hated the perfume of decay and ended up connecting the smell of Palestine with the smell of the pillow.

The same grandmother wears a broken watch – as though she’d killed time at her wrist?, Khaleel wonders. Time that used to exist before the nakba, where now remains only a vague, undefined, suffering limbo.

The idea of limbo, of an interminable wait, is the natural consequence of this strange cocktail of memory, loss and time. Kanafani movingly described the plight of the Palestinian people as ‘waiting by the shore for a boat that will never come.’ Waiting terrifies Khoury’s characters, not least because it has become such a staple – almost permanent feature of their lives. As Khaleel tells Yunis, in anger:

Is waiting nothing? You’re mocking me: waiting is everything. We spend our whole lives waiting, and then you say “nothing” as though you want to dismiss the whole meaning of our lives.

But with the wait, even the lifelong wait, there is the clung-to conviction that it is temporary. This is what Yunis tells Khaleel, in 1982 (Israel’s invasion of Lebanon) and in 1985 (the massacre of the camps): ‘everything is temporary‘ – even this, even exile, even the loss of the homeland, all those things that have defined and continue to define their lives. And underlying the conviction – like most convictions – is the barely-expressed terror about its actuality. But what would happen, asks Khaleel, if we were to remain in this temporary world forever?

The temporary world, the world of exile, death, defeat and loss, but also and equally, the world of the imagined homeland. Imagination, along with memory, plays a crucial role in the novel. History is imagined, Yunis tells Khaleel; an illusion to make people believe that they’ve been alive since the beginning, that they are heirs of the dead. Khaleel protests. If history is an illusion, what would it be for? What would we fight and die for? Doesn’t Palestine deserve our deaths? And the answer, of course, that gradually reveals itself through the book, is that Palestine is, like all things, imagined as well. It is imagined in the pillow, in the broken watch, in the orange branch – the homeland is us. When Khaleel enters a beautiful street in the Circassion Quarter of Beirut, he imagines the streets of Haifa, and those from the tales ‘my grandmother told me… of the city by the sea, where the streets were shaded by trees and jasmine, and there was the scent of frangipani.’ A refugee puts olives on the top of his tent and sings songs to express his nostalgia, imagining the homeland is a plantation. But the imagined Palestine is fragile, fragile because constantly under threat, constantly in need of creation, because stasis here will mean destruction. As Khaleel wonders:

Do you believe we can manufacture our country out of these ambiguous stories? And why do we have to manufacture it? People inherit their countries as they inherit their languages. Why do we, of all the world’s peoples, have to invent our country every day so everything isn’t lost and we find we’ve fallen into eternal sleep?

This invention takes place at multiple levels of symbolism and metaphor; perhaps what’s best about Gate of the Sun is that it is not, at the end, a story about events, but a story about people. At its heart lie two love affairs: Khaleel’s love for Shams, that ends in betrayal and brutal violence; and Yunis’ love for his wife Naheeleh, who lives across the border, and whom he undergoes great dangers to meet in a secret cave called Bab el-Shams (‘Gate of the Sun’); and through the story, love, longing and loss become symbols of Palestine. Every word, act and gesture is loaded with significances. Right at the beginning, Yunis tells Khaleel that if he truly loved Shams, he would have avenged her – and there seems to be a hint of self-criticism in that. We are told, later, as justification for Shams’ betrayal, that a lover must take refuge in other relationships in order to escape the incandescence of his passion. We are told, of Yunis’ own love, that ‘When she was there, he was fully there. When she was absent, he invested himself totally in waiting.‘ Immediately after recounting Yunis’ secret wanderings through Palestine, Khaleel thinks out loud: ‘No-one who hasn’t crossed a desert like the desert of Shams has meaning to his life’; before concluding, ‘Love is feeling yourself to be lost and unanchored. Love is dying because you can’t hold on to the woman you love… that’s love, master – an emptiness suddenly filled, or a fullness that empties and melts into thin air.’ So smoothly, so effortlessly, something entirely, passionately individual and personal has come to mean an entire world beyond itself; love, exile and the yearning for the homeland – like in the best of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry, they have become virtually indistinguishable.  And it’s there in the poetry that the characters quote, seemingly nothing more than fiery love poetry:

I’ll see you coming with the cloudless sky,/ disappearing through the cloudless sky,/ among the almond leaves.

In his political and social commentary, Khoury is unsparing. There is no romanticisation of intifada or revolution for him; in words strikingly similar to Milan Kundera, Khaleel castigates the revolution for leading to ‘monstrosity‘, since it allows persons to ‘enter into history, be the reader and the read at the same time.’ Artists and intellectuals are singled out for special treatment – their particular tragedy, writes Khoury in words that hit home, hard – is they must go, look – and then forget: strikingly portrayed in a scene involving a French theatre crew that, inspired by an idealised account of the glory of death in the refugee camp – has arrived to do some ‘fieldwork’ before putting on a play. As Khaleel observes drily – and savagely (albeit in a different context):

‘He was an intellectual and a writer and a journalist, and they don’t go to war or get involved; they observe death and write, thinking that they’ve experienced
death.’

Yunis himself despises the intellectuals who, visiting the fighters, ‘theorise and philosophise, and then go back to their comfortable homes‘. And nowhere is this made clearer than in the words of the lead actress of the French crew to Khaleel, who has spent part of her early years on a kibbutz, and has come to the refugee camp racked with guilt and confusion. I can’t see the victim as someone turned executioner, she says, because that would make history meaningless. Coming, as it does, on the heels of vivid accounts of massacre, war and death, this grand narrative-building, this flight into concepts and words, sounds the most absurd and meaningless thing ever – to say nothing of being disrespectful and insulting. You can’t intellectualise this, is the point, you can’t possibly make something abstract out of the Shatila Camp massacre – there is only experience and suffering.

Even Palestine itself isn’t spared. Rejecting grand narratives there as well, Khaleel locates – with savage irony and paradox, the creation of ‘Palestine’ right in the middle of – and due to – the nakba.

‘Gaza dissolved in a sea of refugees and became the first place to be collectively
Palestinian. It was there that the Palestinians discovered that they weren’t
groups of people belonging to various districts and villages, the disaster had
manufactured a single people.’

This concern with the rejection of essentialism is central to the entire style of Gate of the Sun, that takes place through so many stories told from so many different perspectives and angles, overlapping, criss-crossing, sometimes contradicting each other. It is a concern that Khaleel voices frequently.

‘I’m scared of a history that has only one version. History has dozens of versions, and for it to ossify into one leads only to death… We mustn’t see ourselves in their mirror, for they’re prisoners of one story, as though the story had abbreviated and ossified them…  Please, father – you mustn’t become just one story. Even you, even Naheeleh – please let me liberate you from from your love story, for I see you as a man who betrays and repents and loves and fears and dies. Believe me, this is the only way if we’re not to become ossified and die… You haven’t ossified into one story. You’re dying, but you’re free. Free of everything and of your story.’

Ossification, a fate worse than death. The issue is particularly poignant and urgent at present day, precisely because of the existence of a Mandated Narrative on everything that has happened in the Middle-East since 1948, with its clear, unproblematic demarcations of right and wrong, good and evil. The peril of such essentialist history is clear and present, and Gate of the Sun is an eloquent warning, expressed powerfully in Khaleel’s admission:

‘The stories are like drops of oil floating on the surface of memory. I try to link
them up but they don’t want to be linked.’

There is much that could be said about the enigmatic character of Yunis, and Naheeleh, his equally complex love; of the doomed love affair between Doctor Khaleel and Shams; of the uncompromising accounts of war, death and massacre; of the hair-raising tales of Yunis’ endless journeys through the region, to the point where the old revolutionary ‘saw his life as scattered fragments -from Palestine to Lebanon, from Lebanon to Syria, from one prison to another’; but there are things to be read and moved by, not to be described.

 

‘I’m standing here. The night covers me, the March rain washes me, and I tell you, ‘Master, this isn’t how stories end. No.’

I stand. The rain forms ropes that extend from the sky to the ground. My feet sink into the mud. I stretch out my hand, I grasp the ropes of the rain, and I walk and walk and walk…’

 

This book will stay with me for a long time.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Elias Khoury